Both men are likely free agents after JTG Daugherty Racing revealed they’re downsizing to a one-car team in 2022. Matty D has been auditioning for weeks after Harrison Burton announced he’ll be a Cup rookie full-time next season driving for Wood Brothers Racing.
The hope for both drivers over the summer was that a surprise upset win would sneak them into the playoffs and give their Cup careers new life. Both gave themselves a couple of chances. Preece was eighth at Pocono Raceway in June, one of a handful of drivers trying to stretch their fuel to the finish. He also placed fourth in the regular season finale at Daytona International Speedway and was in position, at times, to challenge before a flurry of late-race crashes scrambled the field.
DiBenedetto was one of those wrecks after making contact with Chase Elliott on lap 158. That officially ended his playoff hopes after a summer’s worth of momentum built under new crew chief Jonathan Hassler. DiBenedetto earned six straight top-11 finishes before Daytona, leading 32 of his 62 laps on the year in that span. There were oh-so-close moments at Road America (10th after leading 10 laps) and New Hampshire Motor Speedway (race called for darkness just after the No. 21 Ford pitted).
Sadly, in DiBenedetto’s case, close doesn’t cut it as most of those runs came after he was informed the pink slip was coming for 2022. Consistency is nice, but what’s the old saying about second being the first loser?
Both men, despite being two of the more popular drivers in the series, have to face a tough reality: zero wins in a combined 341 Cup starts. That makes them a tough sell in a modern era environment where drivers lose their rides after one bad season (Just ask Daniel Hemric about that one).
While NASCAR Silly Season’s been active, the number of openings on major teams have been limited. The major move has been Brad Keselowski vacating the No. 2 of Team Penske, a ride that was filled internally by reigning NASCAR Xfinity Series champion Austin Cindric. Other than Burton taking over DiBenedetto’s ride, the big merger of note was Trackhouse Racing Team buying out Chip Ganassi Racing’s Cup program. But over there, Ross Chastain will keep his ride while Kurt Busch parachuted safely into a new second car for 23XI Racing.
All of the major four-car teams? Their rides have already been spoken for. In a banner year for Hendrick Motorsports, they’ve locked down drivers on all four cars for the foreseeable future. Joe Gibbs Racing has four drivers signed to long-term deals and young Ty Gibbs knocking on the door as next man up. Stewart-Haas Racing could have had an opening, perhaps with Aric Almirola, but he went out and won New Hampshire.
That means the openings left are nothing more than a lateral move for each driver — if that. Either one could be considered for the GMS Racing ride that remains a giant unknown. Perhaps Gaunt Brothers Racing or Spire Motorsports would be a full-time option? Neither one have been competitive on a weekly basis.
It’s conceivable, I guess, DiBenedetto could replace Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in the JTG Daugherty No. 47. But is that really the best career move? He’s 18th in points right now with a team that made the playoffs last year; Stenhouse is 20th with a car that hasn’t done so since 2014.
Instead of looking for scraps, I think both men need to take a different approach and look at how John Hunter Nemechek has revitalized his career in the Camping World Truck Series. Nemechek, after a rough rookie season in Cup, moved down to a top-tier Truck ride with Kyle Busch Motorsports. Sixteen races later, he’s won five times and is the odds-on favorite to win the title, boasting nearly three times more playoff bonus points than anyone else in the field.
It’s put Nemechek in position to rise back up the right way. At age 24, there’s plenty of time to rebuild his career and land that top-tier opportunity.
While Preece and DiBenedetto are both 30 years old, old men for NASCAR prospects these days, there’s no reason the same trajectory can’t happen to them. Preece already won this year in his first-ever Truck Series start, at Nashville Superspeedway in June. That team, David Gilliland Racing, has just one top-five finish outside of that and failed to put any of their full-time teams in the playoffs. Seems like there’s a clear difference in talent level with Preece, a veteran who could bring a steady hand to that program.
For Matty D, I think about the way in which Hemric has rebuilt his confidence over at Joe Gibbs Racing. Who knows how much sponsorship JGR will have for their Xfinity programs next year; supposedly, Kyle Busch is retiring from the No. 54. Could there be a spot for DiBenedetto in that lineup? It would be a full circle moment for someone who made his first Xfinity start as a JGR prospect way back in 2009.
Looking forward, it’s clear both men have a hard question to answer. Do they want to ride around at the back of the Cup field, ending their careers running 25th every week? Or do they want to step down to a lower series in order to have a chance to win?
Did You Notice? … Quick hits before taking off…
- The case for Stenhouse to continue with JTG: an 18.6 average finish (best for his two years in the No. 47). Top 20 in points and a chance to finish as high as 17th. The case against: plummeting from playoff contention after starting the year there and going nine straight races without a top-10 result. It’s not an easy call.
- The big thing I’m watching in the first race of the NASCAR playoffs is who’s the worst-finishing driver among the Big 3. No, I’m not talking Big 3 drivers … I’m talking Big 3 organizations. Eleven of the 16 drivers in this year’s field are from just three teams: HMS, JGR and Team Penske. It would be near impossible if all 11 made it through to the Round of 12, even if there’s an argument they’re the strongest 11 cars in the field. Someone always stumbles early (see: Ryan Blaney last year) and falls out in this round you don’t expect. I highly doubt it will be Kyle Larson but everyone else? They’re bunched close enough together that anything can happen.
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